Most of the Vietnamese food eaten in California is from the country's southern region. The phở is southern-style, with more use of herbs and strong flavors; the spring rolls are called by their southern name, chả giò; stews and rice dishes and charcuterie are more southern than northern.
There are northern specialists, too, who dish up bún chả Hà Nội and turmeric-laced grilled catfish with dill and onions, and spring rolls that are equally delicious but go by the name nem rán.
When it comes to the center of Vietnam, arguably the gastronomic capital of the country, however, knowledge tends to not go beyond the rich beef soup known as bún bò Huế, named for the ancient imperial city.
Quán Hỷ, then, is a much-needed resource. It specializes in the cuisine of central Vietnam with a moderately long list of dishes.
The restaurant occupies a surprisingly elegant space, given the utilitarian feel of most Little Saigon eateries. A wooden bridge spans a pond full of rocks and good-luck coins as you enter; Quán Hỷ itself is full of light wood and indirect lighting.
The first part of the menu deals with variations on what could best be described as Vietnamese mochi–chewy, sometimes crunchy discs of pounded rice with a minced filling of pork floss and dried shrimp with spices. Bánh bèo are pounded glutinous rice steamed on miniature saucers; bánh khot are fried in a dish that resembles an aebleskiver pan. Bánh ít are balls of stuffed glutinous rice, and bánh ram are crispy-fried glutinous rice balls. You can combine both to come up with bánh ít kep bánh ram, the former “stuck” to the latter.
Where Quán Hỷ shines, however, is in salads and noodle dishes. While mì Quảng, a dish of turmeric-colored noodles tossed with ingredients ranging from tiny shrimp to shaved banana blossoms and from grilled pork to sesame rice crackers, is a worthy dish to order. But the best dish on the menu is bún mít, noodles with jackfruit.
Rice vermicelli are tossed with jackfruit (a Southeast Asian fruit that is a great, slightly sweet stand-in for meat due to its texture), grilled pork, grilled shrimp and a greenhouse's worth of herbs: red perilla, basil, mint, cilantro and thinly shredded banana blossom. What makes the salad, though, is mắm nêm, fish sauce for people who've grown too accustomed to fish sauce. It's made by blending the whole fish into the fish sauce, then preparing the result with pineapple juice, chilies, garlic, limes and water. The pineapple takes the funky edge off the sauce. The result, poured over the salad, is like a sudden harmony, like the snap of a bone popping back into place, a strong feel of rightness. The herbs wake up, the pork provides the necessary undertone, the jackfruit provides texture, and the whole dish sings.
It's been a long time since a dish sang to me like that, and the fact that it's only $6.50 makes it that much more desirable.
Quán Hỷ, 9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 775-7179.